Catherine Wygant Fossett helps family businesses thrive

‘They are the backbone of any community’
Thu, 03/02/2017 - 8:00am

A  family-owned business can be both a joy and a headache. Working for, or with, a family member can be rewarding, but it can also bring rivalries and family history to the forefront, causing friction.

Catherine Wygant Fossett is the executive director of the Institute for Family-Owned Business (IFOB), a nonprofit 501 (c)(3) organization dedicated to supporting and empowering family-owned businesses in Maine.

“Business is challenging, and even more so when you add family dynamics into the equation,” Wygant Fossett said. “There’s a three percent chance that a family business will go from the first generation to the fourth.”

A family business is defined by IFOB as “a business wherein one owner either shares ownership, or works in the business with at least one other family member (contemporaneously or over time) and has a commitment to the continuation of the enterprise.”

Prior to joining IFOB in 2014, Wygant Fossett, a graduate of Bates College and the Maine Association of Nonprofits’ Executive Leadership Institute, was executive director of the Boothbay Harbor Region Chamber of Commerce. Before that, she was director of marketing at Hewins Travel, and director of sales at Hurley Travel Experts.

The daughter of a retired ambassador, Wygant Fossett grew up living in Russia, Africa, Australia and Micronesia. Among her life’s adventures was working for a treasure hunter who went after a Spanish galleon that sank in Saipan in 1638. She edited the story about it that appeared in the September 1990 issue of National Geographic.

Wygant Fossett came to Boothbay to marry Todd Fossett, from New Harbor, in 2011, and learned that some of her ancestors hailed from Bristol Mills. “Todd’s and my ancestors were on the same boat, the Fortune, that came from England to the U.S. in 1623,” she said. “I am also a decedent of John Alden. And Captain Myles Standish’s (who came on the Mayflower as the military officer) second wife, Barbara Standish, was on the Fortune along with (some of) Todd’s ancestors. Three hundred eighty-eight years later Todd and I moved to where our ancestors originally settled a few peninsulas over.

“So while many think I’m from ‘away’ (I was born in Northampton, Massachusetts), I really do have deep roots to this region and after living all over the world. In 2011 I moved to Boothbay, 2.5 miles from my first cousins Graham and Laura Wright, who have lived in Boothbay for over 20 years."

She works out of her home when she’s not on the road to Portland, Bangor, or Lewiston to meet with family businesses and associate partners, and to attend the programs she organizes for IFOB.

The only staff person for the statewide organization, Wygant Fossett she oversees and organizes over 40 programs. “We're trying to show people the different ways they can transition their business, either from one generation to the next, or in some cases, to employees.”

About 90 family-owned businesses and 37 associate partners – accountants, lawyers, insurance brokers, bankers and consultants – are members of IFOB, according to Wygant Fossett. An annual membership can cost from $200, for family businesses with annual gross revenues less that $500,000, to $2,000 for an Associate Partner membership for a non-family-owned business.

Benefits include over 40 programs tailored to the specific interests of members; networking with other members; a company logo, business history and description on the IFOB website; social media interactions; promotions and notices of educational programs offered by members; and discounts on business-related publications.  

For a schedule of the programs offered to members and non-members, visit the IFOB website. Wygant Fossett said the most important part of the organization is the networking and sharing of experiences with its members. “This is priceless!”

Now in its 20th year, IFOB holds an annual awards night, the Maine Family Business Awards, that celebrates family businesses. Held at the Holiday Inn by the Bay, last year over 350 people attended. One hundred eighty nominations got narrowed down eventually to 20 finalists; seven winners received awards.

“I love what I do,” Wygant Fossett said. “It takes all my different skill sets, and it's a really nice feeling to know that I'm helping these family businesses. They are the backbone of any community.”

Wygant Fossett is now looking for nominations for the 2017 Maine Family Business Awards. Anyone who meets the specifications of a family business is eligible. So go to the IFOB website and nominate your favorite.